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‘Manhunt’: The Real Abe Lincoln History Behind Apple TV+’s Latest Drama

It’s possible to divide American history into two eras: before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and after. Before John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln at a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865, assassination simply wasn’t a part of the national conscience. For all the political disputes of America’s 18th and early 19th centuries, straight up killing the other guy wasn’t seen as a possibility, let alone an option. Lincoln’s murder marked the transition to an America where, mathematically speaking, 9% of all sitting Presidents have been assassinated. And they say logging is a dangerous job.

The TV show “Manhunt” on Apple TV+, premiering March 15, tells the story of how Booth evaded capture for twelve days after killing Lincoln, but it’s also a dramatization of the first few weeks of the post-assassination era of American history — the era in which we live today.

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There’s a lot going on in “Manhunt,” so to prep for the series premiere, here’s a primer on the literal state of the union and the show’s major players.

The Victim: Abraham Lincoln (Hamish Linklater)

The broad strokes of Lincoln’s presidency are the stuff of grade school American history. He was the 16th president, he delivered the Gettysburg Address, he made the first political steps to free Black Americans from slavery, and you can see him whenever you pick up a penny.

The Lincoln of “Manhunt,” however, is much more complicated than his mythos. In April 1865, Lincoln was presiding over the last act of the deadliest war in American history while still grieving the loss of his young son William. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln was an unpopular First Lady whose spending habits and erratic behavior were the talk of Washington, and his widely telegraphed plans to extend citizenship, suffrage, and land-based reparations to former slaves made him the enemy of Confederate rebels and Wall Street alike. Lincoln was tired, but he had reason to celebrate: On April 9,1865, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox. Lincoln won the war to keep America as a single nation and could finally implement his plans for Reconstruction. Five days later Lincoln was dead.

The Assassin: John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle)

John Wilkes Booth was a raging white supremacist, a Confederate zealot, and if his personal writings are to be taken at face value, a delusional asshole. The son of one of the most famous Shakespearean actors in America and the brother of another, he redefined what a nepo baby could achieve when he parlayed his name, good looks (many sources, even those critical of Booth, note that he was extremely handsome), charm, and money into a less impressive acting career of his own and a place at the head of a ring of Confederate conspirators who spent months planning the…kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln?

Yep, Booth’s original plan was to kidnap the president and use him as leverage to demand the release of Confederate prisoners. Except that seemed really hard and the war ended before he could do it, so he turned to murder instead and pulled off the 19th century equivalent of Chet Hanks shooting a world leader halfway through the second act of “Hamilton.”

The Conspirators: Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold

A lesser known fact about the events of April 15, 1865 is that Abraham Lincoln was not the only politician marked to die that night. Booth’s plan called for three simultaneous assassinations, with his associates Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt sent to murder Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, respectively. The reason no one hears about those assassinations is because neither of those Confederate geniuses managed to kill their target, despite having much easier tasks than Booth. Powell failed to kill Seward despite the Secretary being bedridden and wounded after a recent carriage accident and Atzerodt got falling-down drunk at a hotel bar and just kind of went home.

Right, That Guy: David Herold (Will Harrison)

Then there was David Herold, the man Booth trusted to help him escape to Virginia after killing Lincoln. Herold’s story is a big part of “Manhunt” so the less said now the better, but suffice it to say that if twelve days sounds like a really long time to get someone from Washington D.C. to Virginia, that’s a solid clue as to Davey’s competence in that area and others.

The Hunter: Edwin McMasters Stanton (Tobias Menzies)

Nicknamed “Mars” for the Roman god of war, Edwin Stanton was Lincoln’s Secretary of War as well as his close friend. Stanton was Lincoln’s first choice to accompany him to see “Our American Cousin” on April 15, but the famously workaholic secretary declined the invitation. He regretted that decision for the rest of his life. In the time directly preceding the events of “Manhunt,” Stanton had revolutionized the War Department by making it the center of telecommunications in the north, making his offices the most useful place to be in the event of a national emergency like, let’s just say, the attempted triple-decapitation of the Union government by a B-List actor, the worst stabber in Washington, and a drunk.

When that actually happened, it fell to Stanton to generate the protocol for hunting a man who performed what some thought was an impossible evil. It fell to him to define what a post-assassination America looks like from the top down, a definition that began with “Manhunt.”

“Manhunt” begins streaming March 15 on Apple TV+.

Sources used in this article include “Manhunt, the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and partial public domain reprints of John Wilkes Booth’s travel diary.

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